I recently saw this album listed erroneously on some web site as Sad
But True. Was it Freud who said that there are no mistakes?
Strange But True is a collection of 22 tiny tabloid tunes
recorded in 1994 and 1996. Jad Fair, leader of the band Half Japanese,
speaks brother David Fair's (also of Half Japanese) words over accompaniment from Yo La Tengo. Lightweight in the extreme, one can get a sense of the regard the participants might have had for the proceedings in the credit for the
'96 songs: "recorded by a guy whose name none of us can remember." The
guy doesn't mind.
Actually, the lyrics are cheery and charming, a testament to
what one can accomplish after sitting down with a copy of the Weekly
World News, a jug of coffee, pen and paper. Sample song titles:
"Helpful Monkey Wallpapers Entire Home," "Clever Chemist Makes Chewing
Gum from Soap," "Three-Year-Old Genius Graduates High School at Top of
Her Class," and one of my favorites, "National Sports Association Hires
Retired English Professor to Name New Wrestling Holds" (among them "A
slow dance with trouble/ Appointment with pain/ And a dunk in the
Devil's teacup/ King Tut's crunch/ And the rubber wrist twist").
Fair's delivery is dripping with deadpan sincerity, if lacking in
emotional diversity. And Yo La Tengo sound like the talented group they
are, spinning out song after song in a varied array of moods and
textures. Many of the '96 songs have the late-night fuzz of much of
YLT's last full-length album, I Can Hear the Heart Beating As
One. (One can't help but wonder what the group would have made of
the tunes outside of this collaboration.)
But listening to Strange But True is a frustrating, off-putting
experience because the songs never really gel -- the words sit on top
like icing, the music a dense cupcake underneath.
The whole enterprise brought to mind a Velvet Underground song, "The
Gift," which marries an exceedingly dry John Cale recitation of a
shaggy-dog story to a pulsating VU groove -- a twist of the balance knob
one way or the other on that track and you can isolate either the music
or the words. In the case of Strange But True, you don't even
have to touch a knob; it's easy enough to isolate one or the other in
Like "The Gift," the songs here are not ones I'll go back to very often,
especially considering all of the excellent work available from Yo La
Tengo and Half Japanese. It's hard now to remember most of them.
Exceptions to all this include "Shocking Fashion Statement Terrorizes
Town," in which Jad actually sings/screams above a feedback-laden
rocker, and "Feisty Millionaire Fills Potholes with Hundred-Dollar
Bills," at 2:41 twice as long as many of the songs here. This ballad,
the album's closer, has a chance to build some momentum; the quietness
allows the words to sink in to the music some.
Sadly, though, these songs can't save Strange But True.